The form, meaning and purpose of university level assessed reflective... Hilary Nesi, Coventry University

The form, meaning and purpose of university level assessed reflective writing
Hilary Nesi, Coventry University [email protected]
Reflective writing, characterised by self-reference and evaluative commentary, is
becoming an increasingly important genre in British universities. Although it is often
associated with professional training because there is a particular need for reflective
practitioners in work situations where unpredictable and irreversible events take place
(Squires 2005), reflective writing tasks are now commonly set in a wide range of UK
university departments, both pure and applied.
A major aim of reflective writing is to provide opportunities for Personal Development
Planning (PDP), thus supporting national initiatives to encourage young people to ‘reflect
on their own learning, performance and/or achievement’ and ‘plan for their personal,
educational and career development’ (Higher Education Academy, 2005). Apart from
assisting students to become more reflective, PDP can also be used to provide alternative
evidence of student learning, when employers need to differentiate between apparently
equally well qualified graduates.
PDP is a cyclical process of planning ahead for future action, working on tasks, and
recording what has been learnt and achieved. It also involves evaluating personal
achievements and considering ways to improve performance, and this second element
poses the greater challenge to students because it requires them to write honestly about
themselves. Many disciplines have traditionally discouraged personal and subjective
writing. Indeed, “the fact that reflective writing involves paying attention to the
experience of the writer as a practitioner can make it seem incompatible with deeply held
views about, for example, legitimate modes of academic enquiry and the nature of
‘evidence’” (Warwick University Centre for Academic Practice, 2006). Moreover, the
purpose of much academic writing is to persuade the reader of the validity of a given
argument, whereas truly reflective writing is often critical of the writer’s own thoughts
and actions, and does not put a positive gloss on personal mistakes or limitations. Thus
reflection in writing is both unfamiliar and potentially risky; it could be argued that the
more personal reflection a text contains, the less it conforms to academic norms, and the
greater the risk that the writer will lose the reader’s esteem.
According to the Higher Education Academy, PDP is most effective when it is integrated
within mainstream academic pursuits, linked to the learning objectives and outcomes of
academic programmes, and supported and endorsed by lecturers and HE institutions. In
other words, it works best when it is embedded within disciplinary practice, when it is
perceived to be an integral part of academic study rather than just a paper exercise, and
when it is not the sole responsibility of personal tutors concerned with student welfare
rather than academic progression.
Some reflective writing activities, such as personal notes, time-planning schedules,
weblogs and reflective journals, are not formally assessed. Reader access to these kinds
of texts can be restricted by the writer, making them an ideal repository for honest
reflection but unsuitable as a means of evidencing student learning, or monitoring the
development of personal development planning skills. Thus, in the hope of obtaining
proof that students are reflecting on their learning, departments often make reflective
writing both compulsory and subject to some form of assessment. A wide variety of
assessed reflective writing tasks have been identified as part of our ESRC-funded project
to investigate genres of student writing1, including:
• reflective prologues to dramatised dissertations (Law)
• reflective commentaries accompanying literature reviews (Health Studies,
Anthropology), and creative rewriting (English Studies)
• diaries reflecting on practical sessions (Archaeology), teamwork (Business,
Occupational Therapy), patient care (Occupational Therapy) and overseas visits
(Engineering. Medicine)
• authors’ assessments of projects (Mechanical Engineering)
• sections labelled learning process / strategy learning review / key learning
moments / development of knowledge and understanding (Business)
• annexes critiquing the authors’ own approach (Business)
• feedback sections (Computer Science)
• self-reflection tasks following responses to a series of questions (Computer
• final sections of multi-part tasks (Manufacturing, Medicine)
Students may be required to write an entire assignment reflecting on their past personal
experiences (“A medical student faced with the three suicide bombings of Cairo in April
2005”) or future ambitions (“What sort of doctor do I want to be by the year 2020?”).
Alternatively, and apparently more commonly, a reflective section is required at the
beginning or end of a longer assessed assignment, perhaps marked as a ‘commentary’,
‘feedback’ or ‘conclusion’.
Not all departments provide clear criteria for assessing reflective writing, and such
criteria are anyway difficult to apply - there is no certain way of knowing whether a
student’s professed reflection is sincere or invented. Given the unfamiliarity of the
reflective task, and the risk entailed in exposing one’s own weaknesses, there is an
obvious danger that students will go through the motions of appearing to reflect, without
actually revealing much about their own thought processes or feelings. Some of the
contributors to the BAWE corpus2 used reflective sections to comment on the ease or
difficulty of a task that had been set, for example, without discussing their reasons for
this response:
this was difficult….
the skull sutures were quite easy…’
Archaeology Diary of practical sessions (6033g)
This database did not seem right for what I am doing. I also found it
very complicated and confusing to use
Anthropology Library Exercise (3027a)
Others provided only a minimal response which cast their activities in a positive light:
Now that I have finished my assignment, I aim not just to understand
the concepts and views of a particular model but to understand its
application and usefulness in the real world.
Reflection on Shell’s stakeholder approach (0253d)
In conclusion the presentation gave me additional insight in
understanding the model…..
'An Investigation of Genres of Assessed Writing in British Higher Education', funded by the
Economic and Social Research Council (project number RES-000-23-0800).
The British Academic Written English corpus, developed as part of 'An Investigation of Genres
of Assessed Writing in British Higher Education’
Reflection on Hofstede’s cultural dimension (0253c)
Nevertheless there are texts in the BAWE corpus which indicate greater preparedness to
explore personal development. Some students admitted their confusion about academic
expectations, as in the following extract:
I found it difficult to draw the line between what is acceptable to discuss in
an academic way, and what is not.
Computer Science: Feedback (6101c)
A few were brave enough to query assumptions underlying their course of study, as in the
two following comments:
From someone who has spent several years studying the use of
Information Technology to further competitive advantage in business the
sharing of ideas, computer code, and resources with customers, peers, and
indeed competitors seemed a baffling concept.
Computer Science: essay (6108i)
Reading the Dilbert cartoons in numbers reminded me of my initial doubts
about this course and the idea of strategy being an academic discipline –
waffling about great paradigms and models without end and leaving it to
someone else to execute.
Business: Key Learning Moments (0206e)
Even in these two examples, however, the writers were careful to indicate that their
doubts were initial responses, later to be modified to conform more closely to the
accepted departmental view.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most apparently genuine reflection in the corpus was
produced in health related disciplines (Health Care, Counselling, Occupational Therapy,
Mental Health Practice etc.). These subjects attract mature students with less immediate
prior experience of academic study. The medical students who contributed to our corpus,
on the other hand, were amongst the least likely to reveal their innermost thoughts,
despite the fact that reflective sections were built into many of their writing tasks. In this
excerpt, for example, the student simply reports on approved practice rather than
discussing personal development:
Once the patient has been stabilised, further investigations should be performed…
Case notes: Impact on your learning (0047b)
Assigning reflective writing tasks may help to encourage reflection, but this is not to say
that students who do not record their reflections do not reflect. Perhaps students can be
trained to produce the kind of reflective pieces that tutors purportedly require, but
ultimately whether or not to reveal one’s hopes, doubts and fears to a tutor is a personal
decision that the student alone must make, and that academic tutors have to respect.
Higher Education Academy 2005 PDP update: policy and practice
Warwick University Centre for Academic Practice (2006) Post Graduate Award for
Research Students: Advice on Reflective Writing.